The fiscal state in Africa: Evidence from a century of growth

Abstract: What is the level of state capacity in developing countries today, and what have been its drivers over the past century? We construct a comprehensive new data set of tax and revenue collection for forty-six African polities from 1900 to 2015. Our data show that polities in Africa have been characterized by strong growth in fiscal capacity on average, but that substantial heterogeneity exists. The empirical analysis reveals that canonical state-building factors such as democratic institutions and interstate warfare have limited power to explain these divergent growth paths. On the other hand, accounting for the relationship between African polities and the international environment—through the availability of external finance and the legacy of colonialism—is key to understanding their differing investments in fiscal capacity. These insights add important nuances to established theories of state building. Not only can the availability of external finance deter investment in fiscal capacity, but it also moderates the efficacy of canonical state-building factors.

Keywords: Fiscal capacity, taxes, Africa, statehood, resources, external finance

Lay summary: As Africa has evolved and changed throughout the twentieth century, measuring the strength of a state in Africa requires a very different metric to a comparative polity in the Northern Hemisphere. To tackle this issue, this paper quantifies the ‘substance’ of states in Africa, by measuring their capacity to collect tax, and provide useful insights into the continent’s economic history. As tax collection can only be carried out by a state with the infrastructure and capacity to do so, it is a useful metric for economic stability.

Cite this article:
Albers, T. N. H., Jerven, M. and Suesse, M. “The Fiscal State in Africa: Evidence from a Century of Growth,” International Organization, Vol. 77, (2023), pp. 65–101. doi: